Dragon Age: Inquisition

Much like The Witcher 3, the third Dragon Age game offers value in (1) storytelling and (2) its core gameplay loop in unequal proportions. In other words, the gameplay can’t quite keep pace. But while the proportions may be similar enough that DAI could invoke The Wild Hunt in my mind, less value is present in DAI all-around.

The Witcher’s story was phenomenal, but the gameplay was staid; refined, respectable, but by-the-book. Likewise, the better parts of DAI’s writing are its best quality: I have a lot of praise for the character writing, and its approaches to relationships, romantic and friendly. If that’s expanded to include the player’s relationship with the world they’re trying to save, and the tensions within the player’s organization, I think it’s even more true. At the same time, the story, the plot, is trivial; the bad guy is a monster of the week with no character, and your fate is to fight him, because, before the game started, you apparently walked into the wrong room while looking for the bathroom or something. Amnesia is involved, and not even as a device to explain the world to unfamiliar players. Placing that tripe on the same pedestal as The Witcher would be frankly unfair.

And that’s the good side of this story-gameplay dichotomy I’m pushing. The central loop of exploration and combat is mediocre, tedious, physically dissatisfying, even frustrating. To describe it, there are a few parallels with Dragon’s Dogma: both are content with some crude and absent systems playing out in their open-worlds, though DAI lacks even the passing of time. Both games have you loot and level up (and give too much influence to character level in a world where you’re ostensibly encouraged to explore for yourself and to be challenged and find useful rewards as you go). Both have you unlock skills and fight with a maximum of 6-8 abilities that can easily be mapped to a controller, along with those of some NPC followers, who can be dressed up to your liking. But in DAI, there’s no value in the moment of what you’re doing. Combat is a slow exchange of numbers. Shooting an arrow from a bow in DDDA had more impact than a big blow from a heavy sword has in DAI. Fighting a group of DDDA’s bandits was a vastly different experience from a pack of wolves, or any number of huge mythical creatures with distinctly targetable body parts. In DAI, you go about fighting anything the same. Sure, as a warrior, you might hook and drag an enemy over if they can be hooked. Kill the mages before the tanks if you can be bothered. But generally, you clash, dump the skills that are off cooldown, and let the computer do the math. (Then someone knocks you down, and you draw out a sigh for 4 or 5 seconds, unable to do anything with your active character.)

Mechanics in depth: combat & exploration
DAI was generally easy and unengaging, despite playing on Hard. My party got wiped out occasionally in some tougher areas, but I still never had to bother using the tactical view and controlling my whole party, which I thought was even more tedious, especially in trying to get my followers to avoid engaging enemies. I only played on Hard in the first place to avoid getting to a point where it wouldn’t matter if I was fighting 5 or 50 enemies, and losing narrative tension as a result (I talked about this a bit recently when talking about AC4). Usually these games are more enjoyable if you actually have to get invested in your party’s composition and skills, and I don’t regret picking Hard over Normal or Easy in what would have been some misguided attempt to blow through it faster. It rarely mattered in the moment of a fight, but even if it just got me to pay a little more attention to weapon crafting, that counts for something.

I did like the potion system, given that it was a little different, with its automatic refills and slots that could be used for either defensive tonics or grenades. There are some pretty cool options in the skill trees, too, and looking at a few builds online, while some options definitely come out ahead over others, players definitely had some room to be creative. I think that’s nice, but then I spent most of the game rolling into every enemy because it would do five times more damage than a big, slow swing from a two-handed maul while leaving me less vulnerable to enemy attacks. It felt extremely clumsy to have worked out that way, but “clumsy” is a recurring theme here. The controls felt unresponsive: I would try to turn off a buff that would drain my stamina while it was active, and I would have to hit it 3 or 4 times before it would finally turn off, possibly because my character was in some kind of subtle post-attack animation phase, possibly because the game hates its players. And the same button is used both for interacting with objects and jumping, which usually meant I would jump around like a lunatic when trying to open a chest. Occasionally it also meant I couldn’t jump onto a platform because there’s something interactive next to it, which is as ridiculous as it sounds.

More to the point, I found myself asking why there even was a jump button. There are no aerial attack skills. Jumping sucked. You run into invisible walls trying to climb onto rocks. You can’t climb steep surfaces except with a ladder. Open-world without any real means of traversing the environment — apart from walking, or trying to awkwardly parkour around the game’s intentions by rapidly jumping and rolling — is joyless and pointless. There’s one very beautiful landscape of an oasis among canyons in the desert, and all the verticality those canyons offered would have been really cool in a totally different game, like Breath of the Wild. In DAI, every surface you need to climb poses the most boring possible question: “Will it be less tedious to find a ladder/ramp if I try circling around from the left, or from the right?”

It’s also buggy — not just of the game-crashing sort (I did have my share of those), but even just a certain level of jank in the background. When 6 horses in a stable all lift their heads at once because nobody thought to insert some randomness into their animation timing, you notice these things, and it shows a kind of carelessness. Just as you’d (hopefully) notice the opposite in the Witcher 3, by no means a game without bugs, but staggeringly fine-tuned in its little details. Bioware is just falling behind on technical sophistication: I have some ridiculous M.2 SSD and not only was I getting load screens that were 15 seconds longer than I’d have been seeing in the Witcher 3, but they showed lore and tooltips for about 2 of those seconds, and spent the other 13 on a black screen. Let’s not get bogged down talking about the exploits, either, which practically fell into your lap and were never patched out. The only reason I didn’t have infinite skill points a third of the way through the game is because I showed what I feel was remarkable self-restraint.

I could write ten more paragraphs about problems in exploration, but it boils down to dissatisfying feel, and the vast emptiness of it all. It feels bad when you have to bend down and play an animation to harvest an herb, or pick up a tiny amount of gold. And it’s empty because there are no systems beyond yourself clashing in that space. Time does not pass; there’s no wrong time or untimely weather to influence your crossing of a bridge or hunting of wildlife. You aren’t worrying that your appropriation of a village’s goods will make them less cooperative to your inquiries. The lands you pass through aren’t changing hands as you make political decisions. Instead, most of the time, you collect trinkets, wiggling a control stick around to see the glimmer that gives away the location of a “skull shard”. It’s not as if I didn’t try to stop and smell the roses, either: I look at the grand vistas, and the old, crumbling statues. But it was worth little when I couldn’t enjoy moving through and interacting with these spaces. Who would think this is fun? Or that a completely isolated activity like drawing lines in the sky would be the one mechanic that would really tie the game together?

There was one thing in the exploration that I really appreciated, though. I have a fascination with the idea of “colonizing” wild spaces in a sense, by taking a place that is hard to traverse, and then making your mark there; imposing a little order. DAI actually (sort of) does this: you might come across a broken bridge or collapsed tunnel, and you can mark it for your Inquisition’s engineers to come by and fix up. I think they should have run further with the idea. The only limit is that it’s never used for shortcuts; just places that can’t be accessed at all otherwise. The act of making your way through some temple and then knocking down a few walls for the next time you have to come through can be strangely satisfying. Or even just kicking down a ladder after making your way up with a much longer route.

Some of the sidequests out in the wild are incredibly dull. If you’re familiar with “single-player MMO” drudge work, there’s plenty of it in DAI. I stopped taking requisition quests as soon as I realized that they repeated infinitely, just asking me to gather more junk, but even some of the quests with named and voiced NPCs can be kind of galling. One guy asked me to find and disarm 5 traps by sight, and then sent me back to rearm the same traps again. That was a low point. Not that there weren’t good ones: one quest tasked me to vanquish a demon (a member of a group who have apparently made an appearance in every Dragon Age game thus far), and when I cut through his minions and walked into his room, he started talking to me, out of cutscene, about how he could offer me a deal. I just started swinging my greataxe at him and to my surprise it actually interrupted his speech and flustered him, and started combat prematurely: that was hard-coded, the only time in the game I was allowed to do anything like it, but in that moment it was exactly what I needed to actually enjoy myself. The game can be good when it really tries: there’s just so little trying.

The last purely mechanical thing to talk about is the war table, which is alright, I guess. You could consider it a different take on the war preparation mechanic from Mass Effect 3, being more hands-on, and used to unlock the main missions rather than just to get a better ending. Essentially these are assignments that are nothing more than a paragraph of text and a choice, and then a real-time countdown until the task is done, maybe 10 minutes, maybe 20 hours. I just went with my gut on these, rather than using a guide to extract the best treasures, as I might have driven myself crazy otherwise. What’s awkward about it is that you get quest chains at times, which are just another paragraph following up on the paragraph you read 20 hours ago. Naturally, by then I’ll have forgotten what the hell the job was about, in part because I was doing several others at the same time, but there’s no history of past assignments. The war table’s inclusion makes the game a little more unique, but had to have been a rushed feature. If it interacted with other mechanical systems — say, Leliana gaining too much organizational power over Josephine and Cullen, or Cullen’s brute-force approach changing the interactions with NPCs in the region the assignment involved, or having to fight denser packs of enemies because you sent Inquisition troops elsewhere — that would have been great. But once again, systems were not much of a consideration for DAI.

If this had been a shorter game, I probably could have written one or two paragraphs about the core loop instead of however many I’m up to now. I would rather talk about the writing. But it’s not a short game, and it would have been dishonest to keep the review’s focus off of where I actually had to spend the bulk of my attention and energy. If the gameplay had been sharper, I’d have happily wasted all that time on it, but if DAI had been 20 hours and called “Telltale Games Presents: Dragon Age Without The Combat And Exploration Parts“, that wouldn’t have been so bad either.

The writing: lore, dialogue, characters, & story
I wasn’t able to jump into DAI with the enthusiasm I had for Mass Effect 3 back when that came out. To put it in perspective, I was 19 and 21 when I played the last couple Dragon Age games, and only played them once each. I’m 28 now and just hitting the third. In other words, I barely remember this stuff. And it’s extremely dense with terribly dry high fantasy nonsense lore. I read a lot while playing this game, but I didn’t even attempt to read every last codex entry. My brain thanks me for making this decision. On the one hand, I feel that if you suffer through enough trivial crap about anything, you’ll be grounded in some sense, and it’ll be that much easier to be invested in the story the next time they bring up the Second Blight or Emperor Drakon or whatever. (This may be called Stockholm syndrome.) On the other hand, if I pick up a book and I see that it’s the third recounting I’ve found of some Orlesian succession dispute or that the constellation Fervenial may represent the elven goddess Andruil and the tenet of Vir Tanadhal, my eyes just kind of automatically glaze over in protest. They don’t make it easy to find the gems when the series is so dense with shit nobody cares about, but some of it is good, and even just knowing Nevarra from Antiva can help the player settle into the rest of the game.

The first real point where I took a deeper interest in what I was playing was probably after settling into my own base in Skyhold, and maybe not really until heading into the Winter Palace, a lengthy quest that mostly revolves around talking to snooty nobles and my own party members at a masquerade ball, while also doing some snooping around. Seeing Morrigan from the first Dragon Age there (and in the process realizing that there actually would be more of a thread of continuity between the games than I first thought) certainly helped, but it’s no coincidence that you spend most of this quest out of combat. I do think the main questline is better than the side-offerings, but even it has a terribly cliche structure. Most of my positive associations come from getting to interact with my party members in more substantive ways than I ever could while traipsing around the Hinterlands. Likewise, the final postgame DLC had several opportunities to just chat with your associates, and lacked wide-open areas, and it was quite good. That said, the Jaws of Hakkon DLC was the most open of the bunch, but since it had a little town to come back to and a lot of interesting characters to meet and see new cultural and historical perspectives from, I enjoyed it considerably more than the DLC set in the Deep Roads.

The dialogue isn’t without flaws. Of course, it is a Bioware game, and that means most of your interactions involve cornering someone to ask twenty questions in a row of “What can you tell me about [opposing political faction]?” “What can you tell me about [this city]?” “What can you tell me about “[You]”? It’s clumsy, and they never quite have figured out how to do exposition, or to get a specific character’s opinions without flat-out interrogating them.

I wouldn’t call the non-expository interactions perfect, either. Even putting aside Vivienne (who appears to be engineered to be the most unlikable one), the humor feels forced and cringey. Sera’s “wacky” character traits are grating, despite some good voice acting and the reasonably interesting ground-up commoner’s movement she’s involved in, a kind of anonymous network of Robin Hoods. (And thank the Maker it has no former power structure, as she’s far too unqualified to be making choices for anyone else.) The mage Dorian is charming, with an engrossing personal arc, but his “funny” lines were in the same vein as Sera’s; just when you thought he was a person, he’d suddenly say some wacky internet mainstream subreddit level shit. You could also take Cole, a great character, but whose disjointed dialogue is a poor and annoying introduction when the game still has earned little currency with the player, and feels like no more than a gimmick. I didn’t necessarily come to see a full eye-to-eye acceptance with every last member of the Inquisition, but they’re all at least highly interesting once you come to know them better (again, maybe excepting Vivienne): at one point I found myself saying, “Well, Blackwall is just a Warden,” and that was right before his character arc took a big step forward and proved me wrong.

I’ve forgotten most of the companions from the previous Dragon Ages, but I don’t think they were as complicated or endearing, nor do I feel as strongly on average about the party members in other Bioware RPGs, including the Mass Effect series, where the vast amount of time spent with some of the cast breeds some lingering affection that other games would have trouble finding. Mass Effect certainly had some legitimate high notes, but nonetheless had some real dud characters too. I’ve played quite a few CRPGs, from Bethesda and Obsidian and elsewhere, and I’ve come to expect gimmicks and clashing perspectives in every big party that assembles to save a world, but I really felt like DAI brought an unusually consistent level of substance there. Even your non-party member advisory team are fully realized individuals. (And Scout Harding is cooler than anyone who’s actually in your party, for whatever little that’s worth in terms of character substance.) And I have absolutely no complaints about the voice acting from any of them.

Apropos of nothing, I’d love to say something nice about the card art shown for each of the followers when you choose who to bring with you on an outing. The art changes as they go through momentous events in their personal lives, and I think there’s nothing quite like it to really drive the nail in on some of those changes in their circumstances, and how they might feel about the Inquisitor, or how they might regret getting involved in the plot at all. It’s a great touch.

There are numerical “approval” scores for each of your followers, which I think is unfortunate, but in my one playthrough, I didn’t get the impression that this system caused anything particularly unjustified or absurd to happen, such as being permitted to shack up with someone who opposes everything you stand for by racking up easy points with “Nice Guy” politeness. I still think this is a bad system, but I think a nuanced execution has mitigated the inherent faults of it here. The characters are well-realized; they tend to know the difference between the nicest thing you could say to them and the thing that might affect a change they want to see, and they won’t allow their grievances to be cancelled out later with gifts of flowers and chocolates. Some followers do have quests with options for massive approval gain to outweigh anything said to them, but crucially, that too is character-driven. You can probably more than make up for any bitter conversations with Blackwall by hunting darkspawn or taking him artifact-hunting, but it makes sense, because those things are clearly just more important to him than friendly words. The same can’t be said for someone like Solas, to whom ideology is paramount. I can’t say for sure if my experience was universal here, but I kept the respect of my entire party just by trying to apply my beliefs consistently.

My approach might have varied a little more in the one-on-one conversations, allowing myself to swagger and claim to chase glory a little more with Iron Bull than say Cassandra, where it was all for the righteousness of the cause. But I think that level of changing yourself depending on who you’re talking to is normal, and I didn’t go directly lying to anyone about what I felt was the right thing to do. Sometimes there were great disapproval penalties, and I didn’t always want to suck up to Vivienne, or Sera when she was being petulant, and I was never punished for being true to myself in this sense. I romanced Cassandra despite my generally acting in the interests of mage rights and being open-minded about interactions with spirits and demons. But because I respected the vision she presented as a reformist of no half-measures, and because I took responsibility in my own dealings as well, I neither saw it as out-of-character for my Inquisitor to be interested in her, nor out-of-character for her to reciprocate (although it might have taken longer to get there as a result of some of my choices). And I would like to believe that the various individuals and histories encountered while travelling with her in my party helped her own perspective grow as well. Anyway, she’s a fantastic character, and has the best accent too, whatever the hell it is. (German? Austrian?)

When I used to play these sorts of games, I felt more pressured to save-scum for the best outcomes. It would take someone out of my party if I was going to do something they didn’t like, which is manipulative, but also unrealistic, seeing as you’re making choices with peoples’ lives and entire countries, and word is obviously going to spread. (Thankfully in DAI, a person doesn’t have to be in your party to take approval penalties.) My approach with DAI from the outset was to jump through no weird hoops to minmax everyone’s love for me, and if that meant I ended up hated by a character, all the better. If anything, I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get at least one person bailing on me, but I did feel like I had a healthier relationship with the game this way. Ultimately, I still prefer an approach like The Witcher’s, which never reduces your relationship with a human being to “+20 points”. At times, talking to non-party members like the advisory staff felt like “purer” interactions, because you aren’t getting “Slightly approves” messages popping up in the corner of your screen. If I didn’t just happen to like Cassandra more than non-party characters like Josephine, I’d have rather avoided the points-based romance entirely.

Another flaw these games often stumble into is a halt in the romance after a “courting” phase, as though getting to fuck someone was an end goal and there was far less of value to explore with that partner afterwards. Mass Effect 3 had been partly forced to confront this by setting an entire game after you’d already been through these decisions with your (second) party, meaning they had to at least try to do something interesting with existing relationships from the start of the game. DAI introduces a new protagonist and new characters, but it didn’t have much of a problem here: you can hook up with a companion well before the endgame, and the real opportunities to chat with them in cutscenes after major missions contain spouse-locked dialogue choices that do help flavor the relationships afterward. There may also be entirely extra cutscenes for romanced characters, but this is unclear to me, as not every member of the team would get a new cutscene at the same time. Bioware also previously had the issue of some companions’ scenes running out early because they weren’t romanced, while unromanceable characters continued on with content until the end of their games. I would not be entirely surprised if this happened in DAI, but if so, it wasn’t as overt. The postgame DLC definitely had some interesting content about the romance my Inquisitor had with Cassandra as well, particularly as I supported her in becoming what was basically the pope, which kind of got in the way of the relationship, but seemed to be the right choice both for her and for the state of the world.

I couldn’t possibly talk about Dragon Age without talking about the way it addresses inclusivity, and matters of sexual orientation and gender. I never felt like the game was pandering or just checking off boxes for the sake of it: I suppose the difference would be if I felt that Krem (a non-party member) had no value apart from his being trans, but I thought that the player character’s gormless reactions and questions to his trans identity coming up as a subject was interesting in itself, even in not taking them (I often liked exercising my right not to ask dumb questions just because they were on my dialogue wheel). Apart from Dorian, I basically had no idea who was gay and who wasn’t until after beating the game and looking it up, as I made my pick and didn’t try to play the field beyond that. It was interesting to find out that my flirting options wouldn’t have gotten me anywhere with Sera, because she was gay, or Cullen, because he wasn’t. In Dragon Age 2, I think they just made everyone bi. That was interesting, but limiting in a ludonarrative sense: if you wish to make a no-judgments wish-fulfillment fuck paradise, go ahead and do it, but the real world has people who will say no to you on the basis of what you are, and that’s something to explore in itself. Most fascinatingly here, as a Qunari or dwarf you have a couple fewer sexual options in the Inquisition than a human or elf does, and that’s something I’ve always wanted to see attempted. It would be ballsier yet if the skin tone you picked during character creation could restrict you like this, but I could see how it would kind of suck for some players.

Generally, there are a lot of parallels in the series with real human rights issues, which is another thing that helps ground the series and make the moral choices thrust upon the player feel important if they care about these causes in real life. At the same time, mage rights thankfully aren’t a direct substitute for talking about gay rights. Nor do elves represent a skin color. Sure, it’s clear to see that people are born as mages; it’s not a “lifestyle choice”, and they’re often locked up, mistreated, even lobotomized. That said, crucially, the real gay rights analogue is simply gay rights: Dorian’s dad actually tried to use some fucked up magic spell to make his son less gay, like some fantasy electroshock conversion therapy. If you’re going to address the subject, who needs nuanced metaphor or layers of tactful abstraction? After all, it’s still a medieval setting where every old man of means is obsessed with siring heirs. It’s going to come up.

Choices & consequences
I don’t intend to play DAI a second time, but I have looked up a few things, and there have been some notably different outcomes to some of my choices. It was pleasantly surprising to see that I wouldn’t actually end up travelling into a hypothetical future where we didn’t save the world, for example, in siding with the templars over the mages, which really did have some reactivity — my expectations here were so low that I thought they would have cheated me around even that being unique to my playthrough. But even that choice doesn’t put you in a different place in the end, and no choice ripples out with meaningful consequences. Many options won’t even necessarily affect a single conversation; they’re the kind of illusory choices that I think can at best feel meaningful in the moment, as long as you don’t think too hard about what they mean. It’s not Alpha Protocol, and that goes without saying, because I can beat Alpha Protocol in 5-8 hours, and this game took me more like 140. But you can still import history from the earlier games, and the protagonist of Dragon Age 2 (who cannot die) even shows up for one mission. Just don’t expect anything to come from it. In the original Dragon Age, the player could die nobly or impregnate a witch with an ancient god and cheat death, which sounds like just about the most earth-shattering divergence you could possibly have, except that it of course means nothing, and the writers probably now regret ever allowing the player that choice at all. According to what I’ve only seen on youtube, if a save is imported, the ancient god baby really does come back into the series in DAI, finally, only to have his godhood neatly stolen away in one cutscene that has very little to do with the player’s quest. Still, it was good to see Morrigan again.

Mass Effect 3’s big trick was to have all these knock-off unkillable characters waiting in the wings — like understudies in a theatrical production — to jump in whenever you killed off the A-listers. Wrex had his brother Wreav, while Mordin had Padok Wiks, his fellow STG operative. That kept the story from ever having to diverge. DAI, on the other hand, is even more flippant in its disregard for your personal history: I completely forgot, or never knew, that the player could kill Leliana in the original Dragon Age by making evil bastard choices. Turns out she literally gets resurrected from the dead, which would make her about as much of a mythical Christ figure in the Dragon Age world as it would if it happened in the real one, and yet goes more or less completely uninterrogated. That’s staggering.

Conclusions, and the future of the series
Ultimately, as much as I may spit on this game for all its mechanical emptiness and filler, extolling other titles like Dragon’s Dogma as I do so, I still believe there is a very clear place in this world for DAI. DDDA, after all, was the game that clumsily invented a slave caste to solve a problem that didn’t really exist, and would make your fated significant other literally just about any NPC you had the best relationship with, including children and old shopkeepers who became your true destiny because you regularly bought goods from them. Great as it was in some respects, it wasn’t the game to tackle social issues, and it’s heartening that there’s at least one major developer making this a priority, and doing so with a bit more tact every time around.

Dragon Age 2 still had the best narrative structure of the series so far, and while they wore out the one city map where the game was set, it was a breath of fresh air to just be embroiled in local events instead of preventing the whole world from exploding. In the next Dragon Age, I wouldn’t mind a return in that direction, paring down the shallow-breadth approach, but with more of an emphasis on the feel of play in the moment. If they could do so, sticking to their strengths in character writing, while putting even half the effort into structural systems bigger than loot or crafting, they’d be off to a great start. There are already too many big franchises doing the open-world thing just to chase trends, and my advice to Bioware would be to avoid competing on a field where they can’t win.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.

 

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Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

AC4‘s big innovation is free-roaming naval gameplay, especially in how this is seamlessly incorporated into the existing mechanics of the series. It’s a little simple in some ways — you could definitely do more with the player’s fleets and cargo without turning it into a space trading game, which might alienate players with shorter attention spans. But even as it is now, you can step away from the wheel, leap off your own ship, climb onto a Spanish man’o’war, kill everyone on deck with a hidden blade, and then return to your own vessel, taking the enemy ship and its cargo without exchanging a single broadside. And I think that’s miles ahead of what AC3 was doing. Imagine if the first couple Grand Theft Auto games didn’t have vehicles at all and you just ran around doing crimes on foot and shooting people from behind cover. And then the third one introduced the car, but you’d only enter one by starting a mission that moved you to a distinct “street map” where you couldn’t leave the car. And finally a real GTA game came out and everything clicked together.

It’s a little silly, but sort of what it feels like to have ships in the mix here. At the same time, I don’t mean to say that future Assassin’s Creed games would never work again without sticking to the naval theme. But as I said in talking about AC3, I can see why they stuck with it for a while longer: the core gameplay of the series has been too thin. I criticized AC3 for making you do a bunch of miscellaneous pseudo-participation in a checklist of historical events that didn’t map to the gameplay mechanics at all. AC4 thankfully does none of that, and yet, 85% of the missions that take place on land seem to involve some variation on tailing somebody, which I now remember getting completely sick of during the AC2 trilogy. Let’s just say I took some comfort in the new feature where I could “rate” missions individually after completing them. Not that Ubisoft would still be looking at feedback from four games ago, but it’s the thought that counts, you know? Another tailing mission; two stars.

It’s not quite enough to sell a game on. But what else is there? For the most part, the series sticks to its underwhelming guns. There’s often more than one way to climb a thing, but it’s mostly fake. And combat is too simple. I’m not saying I’ve never screwed up fights in AC4, but for the most part it doesn’t matter if there’s one guy coming at you, or twenty. Sure, the big bruiser enemies don’t always cooperate with your kill streak, but throw them aside and hit them in the back once and they’re dead just the same; throw in a smoke bomb or something when you run out of room. And I don’t think this is in the game’s best interests, given the ludonarrative dissonance that pops up whenever some guy points a gun at Kenway in a cutscene and he’s expected to care again because there’s no player controlling him anymore. And let’s not forget that it’s ostensibly a stealth game. When I got one objective, “Sabotage all alarm bells,” I thought, “Oh, good. It doesn’t say I can’t let them ring the alarm.” And so I bodychecked a few guards so hard that even Mr. Magoo would have seen me, allowed them to ring it, quickly comboed together like thirty kills in the resulting hullabaloo, and only then cut the alarms. Complete success. I think this is ridiculous: they don’t seem to know what kind of game they want to make.

So, not really knowing anything about the subsequent AC games that have already come out, how might they fix this? Assuming they care in the first place, they could either turn up the threat so some fights become infeasible to win, or play right into it, and make every villain a simpering coward who shouts (from behind the equivalent of six NFL teams’ defensive lines), “Kill him, you imbeciles! He’s only one man!” At this point I think the latter makes more sense. Give enemies some more variations on how they attack, such as with horizontal and vertical swings that have to be dealt with differently.

The series could play around with time more, too. Who says you have to be the same ancestor the whole game? Visit the same city as three of them, swap around like it’s Ocarina of Time or Day of the Tentacle, and pick up an item with one character after burying it with another. Even if you’re cornering the market on the distant past, and as a consequence, your gameplay can’t benefit from the tried-and-true complex but satisfying mechanics of an aircraft or a car in traffic, there’s a lot more open to you than just listening in on people’s conversations and then stabbing them.

So far the position I’ve taken is that the gameplay isn’t deep enough, but to elaborate on that, I often think it’s not deep enough relative to the time a player is expected to put in. This is a common gripe I have with high-profile open-world games, but it’s no less true for that. Even if you make the wise mental health decision that there’s no way in hell you’re going to sail to every meaningless collectible gewgaw on every Far Side Island on your world map — I actually did follow through on that bullshit, but only after muting the game and putting on an hour or two of a podcast — if you’re going for the optional sync objectives, treasure maps, and contracts, I think the lack of respect the game shows for your time is clear. First there are sync objectives which, on rare occasions, won’t show up the first time through a mission, which is great when paired with unskippable end-mission cutscenes. But what really galls me is having to make two or three runs on the same deep-sea dive that was tedious the first time through, because I’ve found a map revealing buried treasure back where I’ve already been, or some assassination target took up residence in a little cave there. Swimming is really unsatisfying too, with Kenway refusing to dive in any reasonable timeframe, or turning poorly, or swimming on ahead past the reef I put him in to hide from a shark. And while taking away your equipment is intended to add to the challenge, I think even more importantly, it gives me fewer ways to have fun. I can’t stab a shark? I can’t get my blow darts wet?

There are also the Mayan stelae things, a bit of busywork which if forced to be called “puzzles” would be an insult to even a chimpanzee’s problem-solving abilities. And while they’ve streamlined the hunting from the last game, throwing harpoons at whales gets dull fast — at least in that Resident Evil 4 boss fight on the lake, you got to control a speedboat while you were at it.

Chests should be far rarer and more memorable, highly guarded or difficult to reach. Collectibles should always be unique; a point I’ve been hammering on about since Deadly Premonition — the only thing that satisfies the requirement here are the ship upgrade plans and the sea shanties, which are amazing, but probably make up about 1% of collectibles. I learned a lot of good sea shanties while playing the game, like Fish in the Sea, Hi-Ho Come Roll Me Over, Leave Her Johnny, Lowlands Away (my favorite), Padstow’s Farewell, Randy Dandy-Oh, Stormalong John… these are clearly the most substantive thing I’ve come away with for all the time I sunk in over the course of about five days straight playing.

There are little improvements; the map and UI for instance. I also like that there are alarm bells for guards to ring now — maybe I should have said that upfront — and I like the way they’ll try to tackle you to let their friends catch up during a chase. But they’re still far too dumb for any kind of system that involves meaningfully interacting with them outside of combat. They forget you instantly, and don’t react to gunshots that are well within hearing range, among other things.

There are a few proper sidequest chains with little stories this time, and that’s cool, but for the most part they’re just more tailing missions. I guess it’s about on par with what you did for the homestead villagers in AC3. While there’s probably a greater variety of side content when looking at the bigger picture, there’s nothing as good as AC3’s base building, which was one of the very few things I really liked about it, flawed as it was.

As for the story itself, I found it immediately more engaging than AC3’s. Connor wasn’t a bad protagonist — he had a great shouting voice on the seas — but Edward Kenway’s “I killed an assassin and took his hoodie thing, and I have no idea why people are talking about templars but I’m going to bilk these jerks for as much money as I can” plot is fucking good right of the gate. Even the Abstergo stuff outside of the Animus had me invested, giving me loads of questions right away. Was I still Desmond? Catching sight of Rebecca on the first floor was a great touch. Who was to say if she was undercover or if Juno pulled some Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure shenanigans on the whole universe? Having no idea what was going on (and for once it not being because I forgot who the characters were or how they got there) felt pretty good.

But the whole “fake assassin” thing came to an end I think sooner than it should have, because once the game settled into petty conflicts between pirates and templars, I felt that it was dragging its feet. A number of characters took a little too long to be dealt with. Apart from liking James Kidd and the Sage stuff, I didn’t much care about the sequence-to-sequence chain of events. Doing more with pretending to work for the templars would have been a better direction. At least the writing was generally snappier; Kenway had less patience for debating morality with dead guys than even I do, and the conflict was far more interpersonal than the usual philosophical, self-righteous drivel the series had offered. I enjoyed the Abstergo audio tapes too.

The main thing AC4 has is its open-world sailing and piracy, and while I’ve found a kind of mellow enjoyment in Windward, and played a few space games like Escape Velocity when I was younger — boarding ships and stealing cargo — I’ve never quite had this experience. And yet it’s disappointing to learn that’s all there is setting it above AC3. It’s a little less glitchy, but still glitchy. It has a more captivating story, but it doesn’t retain its momentum. Meanwhile, the climbing and fighting systems aren’t getting any younger.

Oh, and there’s a companion app, but it sucks.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.

 

Assassin’s Creed III

I’ve put this one off long enough that Assassin’s Creed IV has been given away for free, but I’m still a little interested in seeing how the franchise has developed, so here we are.

AC3 does have a few good ideas. Namely the naval combat. Just about everything else has been executed sloppily. The bugs are endless. I had to limit my framerate in Rivatuner just to interact with horse wagons. I’ve rocketed up into the sky to die from a fall. I’ve been stuck in rocks and other objects until I reloaded from a checkpoint. I’ve crashed on loads, and in one case, had to finish a cutscene on youtube after it autosaved past it. Icons have randomly disappeared from my map, including the ones I needed to quick travel to. Geddan.

Screenshot (1)

hello darkness my old friend

Even putting aside the overt bugs, the game is a full quality pass short of where it should be. Goals are sometimes unclear and mechanics are poorly explained, especially returning AC2 features I’ve long forgotten about. Objectives can be failed before you’ve been told about them. Sometimes, when imploring you to take a straight linear route to an objective, the devs failed to properly fence off the rest of the world, and you end up instantly failing because you stepped on the wrong wooden beam.

The interface feels sluggish, although I remember simple things like opening the map taking even longer in AC2. It takes a couple seconds to switch weapons. Coming from Breath of the Wild, where Link’s weapons pop up instantly on clean white tiles without first wasting a second on small flourishes, AC3 felt rather intolerable. And this is only by the standards of BotW, which was hardly unwilling to waste the player’s time. I can’t list every little thing or I’d be here all day, but one clear example of shoddy interface design would be custom map markers vanishing after quick-travel. It doubles the number of times you need to open your map.

The elaborate parkour animations feel underwhelming after some no-frills free-climbing in more recent games, too. Honestly, I don’t think it’s so bad in Boston or New York when you’re making the choice to get on top of a house, but when you’re asked to leap between a linear path of stalactites in some cave, what’s the point? You’re just looking for a crack on the wall and pushing one direction on a stick. It’s sad, and it makes me feel sad.

Although I’ve generally appreciated the Assassin’s Creed control system for delineating high- and low-profile actions with the right trigger button as a control modifier, the fact is that it’s a bit absurd that I spend 90% of the game holding it down. An analog run is a bit interesting, but probably unnecessary. I’m sure every Assassin’s Creed player has experienced the goofy jumps onto stair railings when they’re just trying to climb down some stairs, or failed-scrambles up a featureless wall when trying to turn a corner during a chase, but rather than hoping players will learn not to be pressing the right trigger in those instances, they should really be dedicating a button to those climbing actions.

Guns are a thing now, and looking for human shields does keep the combat from being too mindless. There’s really nothing to it other than learning which guards have to be disarmed, and fighting proactively enough to get a good kill-streak going (another unexplained feature I forgot about from AC2). Animal hunting diversifies the experience a little, but it’s not much worth talking about. You can whistle to lure guards, something I don’t remember from before, but there’s weird gaming logic that arbitrarily determines when Connor is capable of whistling, which is irritating, because a lure would be useful anywhere.

The homestead development was a nice improvement over what Ezio was doing in Monteriggioni. I appreciated the cast of characters and the effort that went into giving them jobs, places to be, and conversations with each other. But it’s another example of sloppy execution, too: your only real interaction with this system is the clumsy sidequest task of documenting them at work, and it seems to be based as much in RNG as time of day.

Mission quality varies; the good ones are still a little open, and, when they get difficult, you can still puzzle it out. Swimming out to a couple of ships and blowing them up is tough without being seen, but you can find your moment to isolate one guard and start opening up greater gaps in the patrols. Lesser missions are interactive cutscenes. Or they’re just chaos, like when you’re chasing after Thomas Hickey, and every NPC in the crowd chooses to leave Hickey alone and do their best to shove you to the floor. The next time you do the mission, maybe you get lucky, and Hickey takes twice as long.

And while I mentioned how I liked the cast of the homestead, the story was mostly vague morality talk without managing to sell or explain much of any position on what the assassins or templars really do or stand for, which is tiresome enough even without the long-winded death speech every jerk in the series gets. The only real takeaway the game tries to provide is that the founding fathers of America got up to some reprehensible stuff and weren’t pure heroes of good, having owned slaves and the like. I’m no history buff, but this is rather obvious. They barely even begin to cover the full extent of the Native American genocide — Andrew Jackson was a ways off, but there’s nary a word of what’s to come from the guy who puts all the cringingly unfunny diatribes in your database entries. He’d rather go on about how British colonialism wasn’t so bad. Gross.

(Personally I can’t wait to see the series clumsily address the French Revolution, maybe with a concurrent reading of the Eighteenth Brumaire. Unfortunately, I’m still like three games behind that one.)

Politics aside, the character arc wasn’t much better: young native child playing hide-and-seek and coming back to a burning hometown felt like the most cliched thing in video game plot history. Nobody could have thought that was a good idea: it was just one of those things writers force themselves through to get to the parts they actually care about. I mean, I get it: writing is hard, and filling in those bothersome gaps between your good ideas is like eighty percent of the job, but come on. When it’s this lifeless, you have to try something new, or have the guts to skip past it and find some other way to have the narrator tell you his mom died in a fire later.

Let’s get to the crux of it. After Breath of the Wild, with the insane open toolset potential (magnetic control, octorok balloons, korok leaves and all that) — and with Metal Gear Solid V still relatively fresh in my mind too, with its ridiculously polished and robust mechanics (see: cardboard box, D-Walker mech) — what does Assassin’s Creed, as an open world stealth combat series, really have going for it? Purely as a game, and not just as a historical odyssey? Here in Assassin’s Creed III, we do QTE fights with bears. We push two control sticks to try and keep two irate villagers from punching each other. We get a checklist of period events and look on in disbelief as these are crammed awkwardly into missions, with little care as to whether these events might be mechanically suitable… such as tagging along on Paul Revere’s ride, or that joke of a mission where you trot between groups of soldiers and command them to shoot their guns (as if they couldn’t possibly have figured that out for themselves). I’m not at all surprised to see from a cursory glimpse at Wikipedia that both subsequent Assassin’s Creeds — Black Flag & Rogue — stuck with the naval combat theme. After all, it was their only good idea.

The reviewer believes this game stands above total mediocrity. It has something going for it, but ultimately few real merits. Most of the time, it isn’t fun, and doesn’t otherwise provide any sort of emotional payoff. Even though it does some cool things, you should play something else instead.

 

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Breath of the Wild is a top-class Zelda game, the best since Majora’s Mask at least. If Majora’s Mask had a combat system like this one, and the Sheikah Slate and its runes instead of frequently putting up gates in your path as most games in the series have done, it’d be hard to imagine a better Zelda at all. Move on to the next paragraph before I say something like “Unless you count Dark Souls.” Sorry, too late.

It’s shocking how thoroughly the series dropped what it was previously doing to commit to the open-world genre. With the towers you go climbing to reveal map regions, it seems like Nintendo would have been walking into the trap of the bland, focus-tested Triple-A experience of Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry, which not even The Witcher 3 resisted. This is what I was most worried about before the game was released. But I don’t really think that’s its problem. It hasn’t cut corners on that Nintendo charm; the atmosphere and approach to dialogue is up there with the best of their games. It’s super-Japanese, with NPCs standing outside of stores and calling you to go inside, and just being ushered into the inn in Goron City had me grinning stupidly, to say little of the process of getting into the Gerudo town, or more out-there encounters like the lady cooking mountainous piles of dubious food. There’s a real sense of character to the game, and you see it especially in the tribute to Satoru Iwata as a Princess Mononoke-esque noble beast.

As far as other series go, I wouldn’t be surprised if Dragon’s Dogma was actually the biggest influence on the Zelda team, being a well-received open-world title made right there in Japan, and it also letting you climb all over stuff and follow NPCs from their workplaces to their beds in that day-night cycle I love so much — even though here it’s mostly just used so you can get yelled at for trying to talk to people at 2 AM. Neither game tried to be Skyrim; Link is not a potential criminal. Geralt (in The Witcher 3) is fundamentally a good person too, but his is a rough world where he can be caught on the wrong side of the law for no reason other than that the laws were written by bastards. But Zelda games are bright worlds where the only evil is a reincarnating pig demon. There are no guards in the towns keeping an eye on you while you move between market stalls, and when you try to interact with a pumpkin in a cultivated field in the middle of the night, the game helpfully suggests that you come back in the daylight and try again when there’s a farmer you can give your rupees to. It’s more consistent in its good-heartedness than most games ever try to be, including Dragon’s Dogma.

However, the game is too extreme in its approach to open-endedness. I think this is the central flaw of Breath of the Wild. Yes, I love that you can run straight to Ganon once you leave the starting area and beat the game in an hour without having to glitch through a wall or something, and I love that you’ll most likely get your ass kicked if you do. But they gave up far too much control over the difficulty curve. Since they went as far as ruling that any place in the world can be the first place you travel to, everything is modular and feels disconnected. There are a few good exceptions, namely the forces of climate, which can be both very limiting in the early game, and also can be circumvented if you make the right preparations, such as by creating heat-resistance elixirs. I think this is the best way to do openness: you can go anywhere, but most options are a bad idea unless you really know what you’re doing. But you should just be doing this to get some good stuff early-on before returning to where you were, in your place in the linear questline. Morrowind was another game that let you push beyond your current level of progression by using the right scrolls or potions at the right time. But this only reflects the early game of BotW. Later on, climate means nothing beyond taking a couple tedious seconds to switch armor sets when fast-travelling to the other side of Hyrule. There’s nothing like The Glow from Fallout, where no matter how long you put off going there, you’re going to have to pop a lot of Rad-X and take it seriously.

In BotW you don’t find yourself taking many things seriously at all. It has its challenges (including the Trial of the Sword stuff I didn’t even want to do, because it spikes into being so hardcore that it doesn’t even let you save your game), but as a whole it’s dissatisfyingly easy in a way that can’t be fixed by playing on Master Mode. Frankly, it’s just too accommodating to be letting players teleport out of any situation or safely eat infinite food from the pause menu. And while I think climbing all over the terrain is cool, it wouldn’t have hurt to limit players more in this area without just by using the random element of rainy weather, as they do in shrines. The lead-up to Zora’s Domain, where it’s always raining the first time you make your way up there, feels like kind of the right idea, but I suppose you could even cheat your way around that one if you already beat the Rito dungeon and got the absurd Revali’s Gale power, which just lets you fly up over pretty much everything, and which I did not have when I was activating all the towers.

The world also feels a little too empty: rings of rocks hiding Korok seeds don’t fill a space the way a good sidequest does, and good sidequests are sorely lacking — hence the early mention to Majora’s Mask and what a good game the marriage of the two would be. And while you’re in for some amazing combat when fighting a lynel, most of the time you’re fighting bokoblins, moblins, and lizalfos. Humanoid enemies that can be killed without breaking three swords in your inventory are ideal, naturally, and the game is way more dynamic than most action games in terms of the way your ability runes come into play — distract the enemy with a bomb, drop a metal crate on their heads, and so on — or the way you can disarm enemies and make them use gimmicky weapons you drop. But these couple species just don’t go far enough to cover the Hyrule map.

There were some clever ideas hidden away in shrines — there are so many cool ways to make use of the remote bombs, stasis, magnesis, and cryonis powers and the shrines take full advantage — but they are the game at its most modular: they interrupt the exploration, rather than feeling like a part of it. Remember the interconnected caves in Link to the Past, where you’d fall down some hole and exit on a different part of the cliffside? Or experiencing the same places with changes when transitioning between the Light and Dark worlds? There’s none of that interconnectedness in BotW. Hell, there aren’t even caves, really. It’s all just surface — literally and figuratively. Hyrule Castle itself is pretty cool with its numerous entry points, waterfall paths, and bombable walls coming out from the dungeon cells back to the cliffside overlooking the castle moat, but that’s just a tiny fraction of the game.

The nostalgic power of the Zelda franchise is a nuclear bomb, with the music obviously right at the front of that. I’ve liked to see the series not rely too heavily on what came before, at least ever since Ocarina of Time 2: Twilight Princess followed the much stranger Wind Waker, but when it comes to the music and all those incredible motifs, it would be a shame not to use them. Unlike the recent Metroid game where I felt like they relied on the power of old tunes too much, BotW’s soundtrack is sparing. They really didn’t phone it in, say, pulling from Wind Waker’s Dragon Roost Island for the new Rito Village. Other favorites include Vah Medoh, the horseback night music (with its original Zelda theme callback), and various offbeat tracks that would probably feel at home in Mother 3.

The DLC also goes in heavy on the nostalgia, especially if you count Amiibo clothing sets, but the Amiibo stuff is kind of ridiculous, and I won’t go much into that. I’m all for dressing up as older versions of Link and checking out the differences in their fashion, but it’s a little sad the way some of the more unique items are implemented. Take Majora’s mask itself. In The Witcher 3, there would’ve been some fantastic sidequest where the mask had already turned up and Link would have had to nip some situation in the bud before some NPC went insane. But instead, it’s just buried in the dirt near the start of the game. And all it does is combine the effects of other monster masks you find in the game. Couldn’t it have added some kind of hexing rune to the Sheikah Slate menu while worn? Something to target an individual enemy with, like the stasis rune? Wouldn’t that have been something?

The big piece of DLC, though, culminates in a whole new dungeon Link is ostensibly clearing because he wants a dirtbike, and for no other apparent reason except maybe to test his own mettle. It’s in line with what the players are in it for, I’ll give them that. The DLC dungeon may be the best of the dungeons in the game (a low bar really), with a rad boss fight and a set of interesting puzzles based around cogwheels that actually have to be lined up and connected properly. The dirtbike itself is fun, but unfortunately seems to use some horse code in determining where the bike is allowed to be ridden, even though the bike can launch off a lot of cliffsides and the horse can’t. Even if using it on Death Mountain would be suicidal, it should be my choice to die, goddamn it.

Perhaps this sounds like I’m leading up to a thoughtful closing statement about open design in the game world and what the freedom of the dirtbike says about the greater picture, but no, not really. They’re conflicting thoughts, if anything. I want tighter design in the game, but the freedom to make the elf boy to ride a dirtbike off the side of a volcano.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.

 

Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen

Dark Arisen is a very unique take on the open world action-RPG formula, and I was glad I got to play it. It’s deep in some atypical aspects and shallower than its competitors in others. Compared to Skyrim, it actually has fun combat, for one thing — I don’t remember if I’ve ever played as an archer in an action game before and actually thought things felt right in a sense the melee classes would take for granted. It’s as if the industry collectively decided that bows were these weapons that were supposed to just plink away at enemies from a safe but unsatisfying distance, but then Dragon’s Dogma came along and you were shooting ten arrows at the same time without having to stop moving, and you’re ripping through packs of wolves and harpies just as well as a sword guy doing a big spin move. I love that. It even borrows from those Yasumi Matsuno tactics games I love so much: you can change your class after learning some passive abilities, and equip the warrior’s passive augmentations on a sorcerer and so on. It’s cool as hell, even if your viable options are typically narrow.

It also forces no terrible level scaling in its open world. If you make a run out to the far end of the map at the start of the game, you can get some great gear if you can survive long enough to reach it. And when night falls, that means something in a way I haven’t felt apart from maybe Minecraft, or encountering the ghosts of Ocarina of Time’s Hyrule Field when I was nine years old or whatever and still shit at the game. One of the first things I actually didn’t like about Dark Arisen’s combat was the lack of a standard Zelda/Dark Souls lock-on feature, but then I went through a scary night with something circling around me that I couldn’t keep up with, and really had to look closely in my fading lantern light and strain my ears, and it just finally clicked how good of an idea it was to make me do that manually. It’s that much harder to know how many wolves are in a pack when you aren’t keeping a lock on one until it’s dead. Sometimes that wyvern sweeps over your head and you can only stumble around trying to see where it went before it charges at you. It wouldn’t work in every game, but it works here.

But to the other half of what I was saying, some of the other standard CRPG mechanics (like theft and crime) are basically absent. The statute of limitations applied to your brutality is such that if you leave the map and come back, nobody’s trying to attack you anymore. It’s closer to Ganbare Goemon on the SNES than Skyrim here, and Skyrim’s criminal logic already felt too crude for its purposes. But if Dark Arisen tried to compete in the complexity of its systems and the size of its sandbox, it would have failed. Its quests don’t tend to weave together different NPC relationships with the player into a complicated flow chart; they tend to be “Kill The Thing”. The best thing to do is to just play the game it wants you to be playing, instead of trying to be a bastard as part of some misguided and pointless celebration of free will.

The game’s original ideas, of which there are many, are more aptly described as “creative” rather than “unfathomably deep”. For example, climbing is a big part of combat; you climb directly onto anything bigger than a human, stabbing onto the weak spots on their head, the straps of their armor, whatever. I might have enjoyed a robust code of law and guard AI, but you know, I’ll take crawling on an cyclopes’ back like a little bug, too.

In one quest I cleared out a mine that linked two areas on the world map, and when I revisited later to use it as a shortcut, not only did the enemies not respawn, but I gained the ability to sprint there without using up stamina, as if I were in town. I could even pay a merchant there to open up new mining tunnels for my personal use. That kind of colonization of a space is one of my favorite things to see in games, and I often feel I don’t see nearly enough of it.

In character creation, you can literally just make a child, which was just about the only thing I knew about the game going in. There will be cutscenes where you’re in a room full of adults talking about the dragon you’re supposed to kill or whatever, and you’re in the frame like 140 cm tall, the height of a ten-year-old. The game doesn’t care at all, and that’s hilarious. I later bought an item in-game that let me edit my appearance, and just made my character gradually older and taller as I progressed through Bitterblack Isle. By the time I finished, I was an adult.

Here’s another great thing: there’s a forger in the seedy part of town who will make forgeries of whatever you bring him — keys, magical rings, a letter that you’ve been asked to deliver — and apart from losing their magical properties, they’re duplicated perfectly. It plays ingeniously into several quest outcomes; this guy wants a magical grimoire, so you can give it to him or give him a fake and keep the real one for yourself. What’s great is he comes back and tries to use it in front of you in a later quest, which is a real funny way to get hoisted by your own petard, or relieved that you did the nice thing. (But again, most of the quests are comparatively simple.)

The pawn system, in which you create an NPC to follow you around at all times, has to be the deepest of Dragon’s Dogma’s unique ideas. Your pawn learns from everything you do. If you find a secret passage during a quest, your pawn learns about that passage. If you discover the element a monster is weak to, your pawn learns that. Then other players hire out your pawn and if they do that quest or fight that monster, they tell the player who hired them. It’s brilliant in principle, and it gives you a cool goal of trying to make this personal NPC of yours a walking encyclopedia of the whole game world.

In practice, however, it doesn’t always work well. There are two voice actors for pawns and they like to repeat stuff a lot. You don’t command them directly, so there’s no telling if they’ll enchant your weapon with the element you want (or if they’ll do it at all), which gets frustrating. They’re also, well… slaves. Unequivocally. They literally go around calling you “master” as they carry all your shit, and it just feels shocking how obtuse the developers were about it. In fleshing out the world, they try to make it seem alright: they tell us that these aren’t human beings like the player character, and they aren’t doing this against their will, as they basically don’t have a will. But it’s these weird excuses, this sanitizing of the concept of a slave race, that actually calls it into such sharp relief. The thing is, half the CRPGs out there have some weird indentured servitude thing where you amass “followers” who hold what you tell them to hold and otherwise do what you say, and we’re used to it, as just another “gaming” quirk rather than an explicitly narrative thing. In video games you tell a companion, “Wait here,” and they stand there until their bones turn to dust without a thought to their own wishes and needs, and that’s fine, because fuck it. But when you invent “pawns,” these funny people who lack the higher cognition of humans, who are better off this way, and who wouldn’t know what to do with freedom even if they had it? The parallels with actual slavery apologia in the real world have to sink in.

There are a lot of annoying quirks when you get into the nitty-gritty parts of the game design, although I think these are mostly forgivable. The worst is probably that chests have large pools of potential items, and you’re incentivized and all but expected to stand there killing yourself over and over until the chest loads with the thing you want in it. Your endgame quest reward is actually a dagger that you can kill yourself with, seemingly for this exact purpose: there’s no quick way to load a save if you’re still alive. How sad does that sound? Although it was standard in RPGs for decades to put a certain rare item in the fancy chest at the end of the secret tunnel or whatever, Dragon’s Dogma reinvents the wheel in the worst way. One of my favorite things about exploration is getting rewarded with unique items; you may never be sent to a small bandit camp as part of a quest, but it’s there, and you can find a cool bandit mask to wear if you conquer it. Fallout New Vegas was especially good about this with its scattered unique variants on all the guns. Dragon’s Dogma has some cool things like this, but the treasure pool RNG takes half the fun right out of it.

There’s also permanent class-based level scaling. It’s not significant enough to ruin anything if you don’t obsessively plan out which classes you need to be at which levels, but if you ignore stat growth and decide in post-game that you’d like to try being a sorcerer, you’ll be a garbage sorcerer with low magic attack. And frankly, I did mess it up a little; your starting classes have worse level scaling but you’re forced to stick with them until level 10. I didn’t find the inn where you can switch vocations until level 11, which meant I had one bad level right off the bat. I think this kind of thing is bad design; it only serves to make players feel bad for being what they want to be, when they want to be it.

I like when a game’s mechanics give me the freedom to break the balance somewhat, but I don’t like it when a game is already given to me broken, especially when the reasoning is that real-world capitalism is leaking into the fantasy space and they want to encourage people to spend money on a new version. The thought of rebalancing the early parts of Dragon’s Dogma, given the new Dark Arisen starting gifts, was apparently met with a shrug. You’re given an infinite warp stone at the start just for playing the Dark Arisen version of the game, but then you still find consumable versions of that item, as if you’d care. It takes a long time to outgrow the “DLC” gear they throw you, too: some players are likely still wearing it when they beat the main campaign’s dragon boss. Sometimes the poor balance doesn’t even have anything to do with DLC gifts, though. I tried using other gear in my jewelry slot, but I found myself wearing Barbed Nails all the way to the end. If you rolled a Master Ring in super-late postgame with the same two bonuses and the very best possible numbers, it still wouldn’t even be half as good. Sure, a Master Ring can be many other things as well, but it just seems wrong to me.

Worse, the game has a pretty insensible approach to its numbers. If an enemy has 1000 defense and you have 1001 attack, your first 1000 attack gets through that defense and you do 1 damage. If you equip just a slightly different weapon, boosting your attack by roughly 10% to 1100, you’ll then do one hundred times more damage to the same enemy. While it’s usually not quite that stark, it still puts way too much emphasis on getting better gear and worrying about the breakpoints you have to meet for the combat to be fun. With the added Dark Arisen super-boss, Daimon, I went straight from doing no damage against him — quickly giving up, as there was no point to trying — to being so strong that the fight was disappointing when I finally returned. I had made a new bow, and learned that you could stack the effects of four Tagilus’ Miracles. And now that I remember the Tagilus Miracle, Barbed Nails hardly seem broken at all.

It’s far too easy to miss entire quests when not checking in on certain parts of town before progressing through the main storyline. Inventory management is absolutely tedious, as is mining ores or slowly scrounging through sacks on the ground for crafting materials, which I wish the game could have just skipped making me do. But I felt the same way about picking up bits of twine and broom handles in Witcher 3. It’s everywhere now, and I don’t know why.

The “Beloved” system is a mess: you usually end up finding out at the end of the game that your character romanced someone you don’t give a shit about, because you accidentally maxed your affection with a half-dozen NPCs and it just picked one for you. I went for Mercedes the first time and got Quina. On my second playthrough I went for Selene and got Aelinore, even after reading up on all the stuff about how it works. I finally got Mercedes when playing Speed Run mode, and that came as a surprise to me. They might have at least introduced a point in the main questline where the game asks you which of the top five characters comes to mind, and tagged that one. But when I hear that literally anyone apart from two or three key NPCs can be the player’s beloved — including Feste or Simone — I think I got off easy.

I loved all the little Berserk references, though it felt kind of shoehorned when I was getting thrown in the dungeons for being in Aelinore’s room. As (A) a female character who was (B) way too overpowered for the town guards, acting out that scene made me briefly feel like the world was a lot smaller than the setting of Berserk, especially considering the dungeon Griffith was thrown in, built over the old site of Wyndham.

But there were also the cool nods to the “witch of the forest” stuff, as well as more general European fantasy elements that have been much more poorly executed on by games actually made in the West. Like the enemies: cauterizing the heads of a hydra after chopping them off, hunting a griffin by luring it to the ground, evading the petrifying breath of a cockatrice, or targeting the different body parts of a chimera, where the snake, goat, and lion heads each have their own skills and health bars. You can see that the designers really cared about portraying this part of the adventure just as they imagined it in their minds.

And I can’t forget the experience of dragging myself through a windy canyon at night, surrounded by tunnels filled with bandits who were still powerful enough to kill me, and disturbing a giant golem with brightly-lit magical charms on its body, essentially the only thing I could even see in the pitch-black darkness. That whole expedition felt far more memorable than any encounter I can think of in a number of other open world RPGs, and ultimately, I think it’s because the designers nailed this aspect so well that I have such a highly positive impression of this game.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.

Metroid: Zero Mission

This holds up pretty well. The cutscene art and music seem a little crude on the GBA, though I’m not sure if the hardware’s any excuse. I always thought from games like Circle of the Moon, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, and Mother 3 that the GBA really hits a sweet spot in terms of the instrument fidelity and enforced constraint. Super Metroid‘s soundtrack on the SNES is a minimalist masterpiece, but I didn’t really feel like the music here was anything special.

There’s still quite a bit of content after the point where the original NES game ends, and the additions are interesting. They take away your suit and make you do stealth segments, which is kind of a hard sell, but it kind of works. Getting chased between rooms by space pirates who can kick your ass, and still being able to do wall-kicks and find your own way around, doesn’t make for a bad approach to stealth. Nor is it incompatible with what the series is all about, as far as I’m concerned. I had already been thinking about what else could be done in the Metroid series without just repeating the same formula–the last three Metroid games I’ve played now have been direct remakes (of Metroid 2, 2 again, and 1, respectively), and at times it felt formulaic to the point that I didn’t know what the point was, especially with Samus Returns, which stretched this out over a much larger world map. What is Metroid, really? Am I playing all these because I think it’s important to use 99-unit energy tanks for player health? Of course not. As long as a Metroid game allows me to find my way around for myself, at my own pace, and is open enough to allow for some pretty deep advanced techniques to get some upgrades and abilities early on (while not ultimately skipping whole areas), I think I’m good. I overlooked this in talking about Samus Returns: you tend to have to do things when it wants you to do them, and it was a little joyless by comparison.

Zero Mission‘s design can be a little obtuse, though. Usually you have some indication of what area you’re supposed to be in, but even on the primary path you might need to bomb some subtly-different ground tile to progress onward. I got stuck for a while because of this. Mind you, because it was early in the game when I didn’t have too many other places to be, I was bound to find that tile sooner or later. And on the bright side, it got me to adjust to how Zero Mission likes to hide things. But it was far from the only time I got stuck. In Ridley’s area I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do until I gave up and turned around, only to find out that backtracking was the way to progress: a defeated boss moved away from its arena after I’d left its room, creating a new path for me. It’s as if some designer said, “Let’s have it so in this area, players have to butt their heads against a wall and then give up in order to find the way forward.” It’s a minor thing, I suppose — every player would eventually turn around, even if they could think of no other new place to visit with their current gear — but I can’t imagine a world in which that was the ideal way to have the player’s path through the level flow.

But that’s only regarding the main path. When it comes to optional ammo pickups, the missile caches, finding those gets far less intuitive. There are clever sequence-breaking tricks that the game never teaches you, but which the faithful Metroid players would already know about going in, like wall-kicking up a single wall or doing infinite bomb-jumps. I found it thrilling to use these to get up to hard-to-reach areas early on, assuming I’d otherwise be forced to wait until I had the space-jump to do them. But you don’t get to use the space-jump at all during the original NES stretch of the game. At some point these advanced tricks seemed to stop being the quick-and-dirty way to do get these pickups, but the only way. Many secrets I couldn’t find at all: I was convinced I’d be able to keep exploring Crateria after blowing up Mother Brain, despite anticipating the self-destruct timer, because there were power-bomb-yellow doors on the map, and I hadn’t found power bombs yet. Oh, I hadn’t entirely been wrong: you aren’t normally introduced to power bombs until after Mother Brain, in the new Zero Mission content. But you don’t get to keep exploring Zebes after it blows up, either — at least, not without loading up Super Metroid. So what gives? Well, if you see something to power-bomb on Zebes, the only way to do it is by using some esoteric diagonal ballspark move I never would’ve thought of, to get a different power-bomb pickup early. You know how in Super Metroid, you could use the mockball trick to get super missiles early? Imagine needing to approach that same level of esoteric nonsense for 100% completion: that was roughly how this felt. It also explains none of it. Super Metroid actually had animals that showed you the wall-kick, assuming you were willing to stop and watch. But there’s nothing like that here. I find that a little strange, given it’s a remake of the original game. Where else should a player expect a fresh start, with no foreknowledge of how things work?

To some extent I think it’s kind of cool and old-school to have secrets I’m not going to find, but I would’ve only really gone in for that if I could reload a save after the credits or something and get to return to before Mother Brain died, letting me do it at my own pace. I also resented the use of the shinespark for these. There were multiple occasions where the levels felt too cramped for it, and I had some trouble with the controls, at least in using the 3DS D-pad. (The GBA, unlike the SNES or the sort of controller you’d use playing AM2R on PC, also lacks X and Y buttons, and has to cram more functionality into what’s left.) Shinesparking is also used in more complicated ways than before, often requiring you to chain them by using a new mechanic where your launch gets interrupted on slopes, while retaining momentum. You tend to have to do things in a very specific and calculated way, hitting precise but ambiguously-textured blocks.

Even when you found the secrets, collecting powerups gets pretty challenging sometimes, but this was the kind of challenge I happened to appreciate. One room I just barely noticed near Ridley, with two missile packs in it, required basically all the skill I felt I had, even after I figured out how I was supposed to do it. I had to manage rolling into a shaft, clearing away blocks with my beam, and shooting missiles upward, before the blocks at my feet crumbled away. It was getting frustrating, but I felt extremely gratified when I pulled it off. This was ten times harder than any of the Zero Mission bosses, and ten times harder than the skill level needed for obtaining any pickups in Samus Returns: there’s no time-slowing power here to make a joke out of the crumbling floor tiles. And yet at the same time, Samus Returns had bosses that required extreme precision, being hard as hell and the highest-quality aspect of the game. Strange.

Having complained that Samus Returns’ map-revealing ability was too much, it might seem a little silly to be making a strong complaint in the other direction here, but Zero Mission has classic map stations, and they just don’t reveal enough to really matter. The desired middle-ground should be obvious, though: add map stations that take some effort to reach, but which actually reveal gaps on the map tiles where there are entrances to rooms you’ve never been in. It’s odd to me that Samus Returns did away with the map stations and just let you see everything around you in a giant radius when this other option is here. Starting blind in an area, and having the map room as an objective in itself, has always been a great way to design the levels.

I liked this one a bit more than Samus Returns. It had its own strengths, but where it didn’t offer enough to justify its longer playtime, Zero Mission tried new things that worked, and has stronger fundamentals. The openness with which you could use tricks to get over ledges early or do a sequence of rooms in reverse — without doing some directionless amorphous design where you have no sense of where you’re going at all — is top-tier among the other games in the series. But I’d have loved it if it were ported into AM2R with some changes here and there, like adjusting the shinesparking a little and benefiting from a more informative map screen. Mainly, I have some regrets that the game’s post-Mother Brain sequence got in the way of me finding everything for myself. It’s not a long game, but I’d rather not start over anytime soon. I’ve never been a Metroid speedrunner, and I think doing things slowly, in one go, at my own pace, should remain a core part of the Metroid series, too.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.

 

Metroid: Samus Returns

There was an unofficial Metroid 2: Return of Samus remake last year; a fangame. It was actually pretty incredible. Nintendo sent the guy a DMCA request and, surprisingly, announced their own Metroid 2 remake shortly after: Samus Returns, for the 3DS. Funny how that works; Metroid 2 came out in 1991, and then few people cared about it for like 25 years. Now we have two new versions. It gives us a pretty interesting way to compare and contrast.

Being on the 3DS hasn’t worked in the favor of the official game: the 3D graphics perform sluggishly at times (at least on my old XL), and the controls are brutal on my hands: Samus Returns has to be quite forgiving for anyone aiming with a circle pad, but AM2R felt extremely tight without bothering with the new free-aim stuff (which actually would’ve worked better with the real control stick I used to play it, or, say, in an official title on the Switch). And it’s no shock which of the two games has more profit-seeking junk getting in the way: I don’t want to buy plastic toys, not to mention the actual plug-in amiibo reader, to unlock all the modes and get all the energy tanks. And I won’t. (Besides, the old Castlevania games always had awesome postgame modes where you played as new characters with new moves, but here? Fusion Suit mode is just regular mode, but you take four times the damage. With these controls? Nah.)

I also noticed some slowdown in a few areas. No doubt this is less of a problem on a new 3DS or 2DS. On my old XL, it’s normally fine, except in cutscenes. In some areas deeper into the game, it gets worse. There’s one boss with two big grinders for arms — it’s actually kind of a neat fight, except for a badly communicated weak point and the 3D effects that drag the framerate down to a basically unplayable state. I don’t think the 3D graphics look very good anyway: if they had just done another sprite game with slightly retouched Zero Mission assets — as I assume AM2R did — I think it would’ve looked great and performed better. It’s a sad state of affairs when Nintendo’s releasing titles for their flagship series which barely run on the systems they are, officially, still coming out on. It’s not like I’m trying to play Xenoblade Chronicles here: this is not a New 3DS exclusive. As I already alluded to, it’s not like they can’t do Metroid sidescrollers on the Switch too, you know? Save the 3D for there, and give us some more pixel art.

I actually saved myself some thumb pain by using a homebrew app that sends control stick input from an xbox controller over wifi. This was really cool, and mostly worked well, but sometimes the wifi link would get spotty for a while — it seemed to get laggy whenever I needed it most. And once I got super missiles and found out I had to use the touch screen to switch to them, that made using an xbox controller a little more of a hassle. Still, whenever the going got tough (like with the aforementioned Big Grinder Arms guy) it helped a lot that I could change to a real controller for ten or fifteen minutes.

Samus Returns definitely isn’t afraid to break from convention, which is nice, because Metroid 2 was kind of crude; an almost blank slate to build upon. If you first look at the gameboy version’s map, and AM2R’s, they’re very close to the same size, but with three entirely new areas added in AM2R. These are probably the coolest parts of the game, but for the most part, as one would expect from a fangame, your path through SR-388 stays pretty faithful to the source material. Though I hardly remember much of my original Metroid 2 playthrough, I think AM2R just made some occasional adjustments to the maps to let you use Super Metroid power-ups that weren’t originally there: the general flow and shape of passageways remained unchanged. The map in Samus Returns, though, seems to completely do its own thing. It’s several times bigger. The designers did whatever they wanted.

Some of these changes are nice. Some are problematic, though, like the fast-travel stations. Teleportation points aren’t worth crying about, but it’s better to have an interconnecting map; when you can just warp to earlier areas, it feels like cutting corners. AM2R’s means of getting back to old areas later — by getting shot through cannons into directly vertically or horizontally aligned rooms far away — was much more clever. I feel the same way about the scan pulse: while it sucks when a game hides things in random tiles and you have little chance of finding everything unless you play with a guide open, I think most Metroid games have already been smart enough about showing the connections to unvisited rooms, and marking which ones still hold power-ups you haven’t collected. As long as the game is straightforward enough about which tiles can be blown up, something like a scan pulse should be unnecessary, and I think putting it in there takes some of the responsibility off the level designer to keep puzzles sensible.

Even with this “corner-cutting” designer handicap, though, I had to look up how to get past one type of obstacle: the ones you propel yourself past with power bombs. The idea that you’ll only get launched if you’re using the spider ball to secure yourself just never occurred to me after realizing it did nothing in non-spider form; it’s the kind of thing that they should’ve tutorialized by locking you into a room right after you get the power bomb, making you use it (both horizontally and vertically) to get out. AM2R had some head-scratchers, but everything was communicated clearly. I don’t like looking things up in a Metroid game.

It’s a tough game, even with changes that can make it feel casualized. Power-ups even get sucked in when you’re not holding a charge beam now, which is a little sad. More to the point, though, you can continue from outside of a boss door when you die now. In exchange, though, those bosses tend to be more than you can possibly take without several practice runs, and even then will test your limits, mainly because getting hit by the wrong attack can empty three energy tanks when you have maybe seven total. Blame the framerate and thumb pad if you want, I certainly will, but either way some of those encounters (like Big Grinder Arms guy) took me half a dozen tries. These fights can last several minutes, too.

But to speak some more on departures from the traditional mechanics, let’s get to the obvious one: they gave Samus a melee bash that parries enemies, which is about as out-there as it gets. It’s neat, but you have to play a little too reactively, and I’m not sure that’s the right fit for Metroid. When you’re up close already and need some breathing room, it makes sense to have it, but enemies take far too many hits to die when you’re not killing them with a parry and counter-blast. If you’re not already in a position the enemy will attack from, you have to go out of your way to line one up, making yourself unnecessarily vulnerable, so I found myself resenting the addition at times. It may have been smarter to simply avoid those enemies, but I find you’re usually hungry for at least one kind of ammo or health pickup, or you’re still checking out the room and don’t want to leave the threat there, so it’s best to kill everything outside of a speedrun.

It’s admirable that the game doesn’t try to sell itself purely by repackaging the old, though as I say this I actually feel contradicted by the use of the Lower Norfair music used in the lava areas, which wasn’t actually part of the series until the third game. It seems to have been thrown into Metroid 2 retroactively, for a kind of backwards application of nostalgia. Of course this is a nerdy thing to get mad about, but what better time to actually expand the repertoire of Metroid themes than when you’re going back to a time when there was so little to build from? Like Super Metroid itself did, with such incredible results? (I’ll make an exception for Ridley’s fight music, though a new version of his NES lair theme could’ve been cool too.)

It seems that the only place where Samus Returns and AM2R both really stick to the Metroid 2 gameplay is in throwing in dozens of repeat fights against the same metroid minibosses; first the alpha, then the gamma, zeta, and omega life stages. Both remakes added several of their own completely new bosses, and both got pretty creative there, though Samus Returns definitely goes the extra mile in boss complexity — it probably says something about my preferences as a whole that during a few boss fights in the 3DS game, I found myself thinking about how cool it would be if someone added them to AM2R in a patch. But the miniboss repetition doesn’t seem like something that really needed to be preserved, and we could’ve tried fighting just one metroid at each stage of life — maybe then throwing in a gauntlet of each in a row near the end? — and just getting to kill some more metroids scattered around in their iconic larval state elsewhere — especially in Samus Returns, with its deeper interest in change.

Super Metroid is my favorite Metroid; I think the series only had the barest inkling of what it was supposed to be before then, and it’s lost that inkling numerous times since. I still haven’t played Zero Mission, but it’s safe to say that for players with no existing associations or attachments, AM2R was up there with the best of them, doing what the series has always been praised for, and for bonus points it did it on the best possible hardware, which is to say PC. But this isn’t a review of AM2R. Samus Returns fluctuates between bold and formulaic, but in both the old and the new, it’s a mixed bag. On better hardware, I might have called it a very good game.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.